Sustainable cities

Sustainable cities
This post was triggered by a call for papers for a conference on sustainable cities. The conference, to be held in Spain, suggested a very viable menu of topics — but the conference fee alone, before even considering travel and accommodation — was listed as over 1000 Euros (almost $1500.-) which would seem to make it rather unsustainable for even members of public universities let alone retirees to attend. If it is acknowledged that even such oldtimers might have some useful ideas about problems like this, some other means for inviting and communicating about them ought to be considered.
Here is one small idea for helping cities achieve a smoother transformation to a more sustainable future.

The problem of sustainability of cities is already a formidable one and will become more urgent. The proposals for what to do to diminish the impact seem to focus mainly on application of new technology to new building construction. The bulk of new development will, however, tent to occur — as it has in the past — at the periphery of existing cities. This will not only leave the existing structure with its inefficiencies largely intact, it is also debatable whether the gains in sustainability will be significant enough, given the obvious negative impact of any new construction as compared to existing builidngs, regardless of their efficiency gains in the long run. In addition, the application of new technology for better sustainability tends to be at least perceived if not actually incur increased initial costs that act as a deterrent slowing down the pace of transition. The question therefore must be, in my opinion, less about how to make new construction more sustainable (not to discourage such efforts at all however), but to look for ways on which necessary new elements can be used to gradually turn tendencies, habits, and patterns of urban life around. The patterns that contribute to sustainability problems are many; but they can be grouped under a few headings: segregation not only of functions but also of socio-economic and ethnic strata, all of which lead to transportation problems; density — or the lack of it as it applies e.g. to the suburbs, which increases the resources that must be devoted to infrastructure (roads, utilities, and other services); and widely shared perceptions regarding independence, privacy and the like that seem to guide consumer preference for detached suburban dwellings in spite of the conformity constraints reigning in such developments that all but negate those desired freedoms.

I suggest that part of a meaningful sustainability strategy for cities should include the deliberate use of new urban elements to provide the initial catalyst for changing those trends. One example is the need for cities to develop better services related to emergencies such as those caused by natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods, earthquakes. In such situations, there will be a need for immediate short-term shelter for a large number of people. Such shelters must then have various services: food and water, sanitation, health services, power supply, protection, and communication. This suggests that any facilities developed for such purposes must provide not only space but adequately planned components for each of these services, which of course does not match prevalent concepts of what temporary shelter facilities should look like, and more importantly, what they should cost.

The question is whether such shelters should be regarded as merely temporary (with the above-mentioned services housed in their regular headquarters elsewhere and only establishing a temporary presence in the shelter).

While the plausible expectation is that most of the people requiring shelter during an emergency will be able to return to their homes after the emergency has passed, experience shows that many disasters lead to the destruction of homes, making their owners homeless and requiring alternate shelter for an extended period of time, before their residences can be repaired or rebuilt. This has traditionally been done, for example following the hurricanes Katrina and Rita, by either relocating people in motels up to hundreds of miles away, or in ‘temporary’ settlements of trailers that soon become new forms of ghettoes, requiring services that now had to be provided in the respective locations, all of which is not only expensive but — because ‘expected’ to be temporary and thus ‘cheap ‘ — usually quite substandard and troubled by new problems.

An alternative kind of response to this urgent task of planning for emergencies — which many cities only have begun to consider in earnest — would be the following:

An emergency shelter would be planned not only for short term accommodation of large numbers of evacuees, but as a potential nucleus or catalyst for a new form of urban settlement. It would provide for the possibility of people requiring extended stay, to begin to ‘expand’ and convert their crowded temporary accommodations into regular, full-service residences. The municipal services of police protection, health care, utility services, plus shopping, day care, schools, transportation, financial services, and even increasingly: employment, for example in branch offices of established firms (for example services for repairs and remodeling construction, and supplies for the expansion of shelter accommodations) merely setting up their own emergency operation in or near the shelter facilities, whose coordination during an emergency is critical, would be permanently located in the facility. The building or buildings themselves would have to be built not only to survive hurricanes, floods, or earthquakes, but would of course would have their own power and water supply independently of public infrastructure that might be incapacitated by the emergency. This means that they could and should be built as model or demonstration sustainability projects, utilizing available technology, possibilities and resources for energy generation, from the very beginning (rather than having to rely on emergency generators for which the supply of fuel might well be jeopardized by the very emergency).

The need of some evacuees for extended stay in shelter facilities will now result in a new housing supply in a well integrated and serviced urban setting providing essential services ‘within walking distance’. It is arguably only a matter of careful design to plan these facilities in such a way that they can become attractive, convenient places for ‘regular’ urban life. They might not only provide a new market for housing for ‘startup’ households, but even entice some of the evacuated residents to stay in these new quarters, and thereby contribute to the eventual transformation of parts of urban life in a gradual, step-by-step fashion. The financing of such facilities could be achieved by combining resources and funds now devoted separately to emergency response, and to efforts to improve sustainability: each done separately will likely run into obstacles of funding, but if both are acknowledged as necessary, their combination can make such projects eminently feasible. It could even be part of a perennial effort to ‘revitalize’ parts of cities in or near downtown that have fallen victim to urban blight, crime, and abandonment.

A case for such a project was made in response to a City of Tallahassee call for citizen ideas to improve the community. It was one of four such ideas ‘selected’ for implementation — or at least consideration — out of a total of some 35 submissions. But strangely and perversely, the site selected for the project was one far outside the city center, on a major artery but far away from any employment, shopping or even nearby residential areas; a location that missed the opportunity for such a project to help transform the current urban patterns towards greater sustainability. The call for proposals was not inviting any detailed description or design solutions — visual tools that might help clarify the potential of such ideas. This is a task that perhaps should be taken up in the form of design projects in local architecture and planning schools (in cooperation with official planning authorities), or through public competitions inviting local architects, developers, and planners to devote part of the time of waiting for economic recovery to contribute their creativity and skill to such overarching community projects.

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